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Beethoven: String Quartets No 10 & 11 / Moscow String Quartet

Release Date: 04/30/1996 
Label:  Finer Arts   Catalog #: 9604   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Eugenia AlikhanovaValentina AlykovaTatiana KokhanovskayaOlga Ogranovich
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Moscow String Quartet
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 0 Hours 59 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BEETHOVEN String Quartets: No. 10, Op. 74, “Harp”; No. 11, Op. 95, “Serioso” Moscow Str Qrt FINER ARTS 9604-2 (59:21)

This is my first encounter with the all-female Moscow String Quartet, although it has been in existence for two decades and has made a sprinkling of recordings, mostly of Russian repertoire. Five of its prior efforts have been reviewed in Fanfare Read more and were generally well received. In these Beethoven performances, the Moscow players produce a big, generally euphonious sound with lots of tonal weight. The first violinist, it is true, has a very bright sound and occasionally stands out from the remainder of the ensemble more than is ideal. A very expansive, although flexible, approach to tempo also contributes to the large scale of these performances. The Moscow Quartet’s timings for the eight movements on this disc (10:35, 10:33, 6:02, and 7:19 in op. 74; 5:47, 8:13, 5:25, and 5:17 in op. 95) are in nearly all cases longer, and often significantly so, than those of the other performances I have used for comparison, including recordings by the Alban Berg, Emerson, Cleveland, Takács, Talich, Tokyo, Juilliard, Budapest, Vermeer, and Endellion quartets. The intensity in the Moscow performances derives not from urgent forward pressure but from strong dynamic and agogic stresses, forceful attacks, and generous applications of tonal weight. The tonal opulence is combined with a clarity of texture that allows the contributions of individual instruments to be heard distinctly, and these performances are especially rich in detail. The playing is full of character as well as technically proficient.

Beethoven’s “Harp” Quartet, op. 74, is sometimes depicted as a throwback, a reversion to a simpler style, after the innovative “Razumovsky” quartets that preceded it, and a lesser work than those. The French musicologist Joseph de Marliave, on the other hand, in his classic study of the Beethoven quartets, refers to op. 74 as “a complex work,” characterized by “emotional subtlety and…advanced modern technique,” and even “the key to the soul of Beethoven.” I am inclined to side more with Marliave on the stature of this work. The “Harp” bears little resemblance to the earlier quartets of op. 18, and the angry scherzo rather anticipates the furies of the op. 95 “Serioso” Quartet that followed. Marliave also detects hints of Beethoven’s late- quartet style in this work, as do I. The Moscow Quartet’s conception is anything but lightweight. After a drawn-out but well-sustained introduction, the first movement proceeds with considerable momentum and thrust, broad rubatos, and clear articulation, not seeming overly slow. The Adagio ma non troppo is very deliberate but fervent and lyrical, with warm, ample tone. Admittedly, the tempo could be criticized as indeed troppo , although the Vermeer Quartet (Teldec) takes even longer in this movement. The scherzo is forceful through tonal weight and emphatic stresses rather than speed. While the overall pace in the finale is broad, there is ample thrust and marked contrast between slow and fast variations. The timings for the last two movements, listed on the insert as 5:07 and 6:55, are actually 6:02 and 7:19, substantially outdistancing any of the competitors mentioned.

When I was an undergraduate, nearly half a century ago, I used the “Serioso” Quartet as a form of therapy to relieve anger and frustration, much of it connected with a certain young woman. I had a very intense rendition by the Juilliard Quartet on an RCA LP, which I would put on the turntable just before getting into bed. By the time it finished, all my rage had been absorbed by Beethoven’s rage, and I was able to drift peacefully off to sleep. The Moscow Quartet’s performance is predictably very different but has its own form of intensity and powerful expressivity. In the first movement, the exposition is very drawn out and flexible, with massive, rich tone and an unusual amount of detail. The development gathers momentum, but the full fury of the movement emerges only in the immense tonal weight applied to its final climax. (The timing is 5:47, not the 5:56 stated on the insert.) The second movement is enigmatic and brooding, but Allegretto ma non troppo it’s not, and here the first violin is often too prominent and, indeed, shrill. Despite a timing at least half a minute longer than in any of the other performances mentioned, the scherzo does not seem especially slow, but again it is tonal weight and forceful stresses that generate its massive momentum. The tempo relaxes noticeably for a gentle, yearning treatment of the trio section. The main tempo for the finale is deliberate but very flexible, with strong accents, but the major-key coda is unexpectedly taken quite fast.

Excepting that occasional shrillness from the first violin, these performances are recorded in excellent sound, with vivid realism, spaciousness and depth, precise definition of timbre, and clear differentiation among the instruments. None of the alternatives mentioned match this release in realism and transparency. The sheer sound of the Moscow Quartet, as recorded here, is often stunning.

I suspect that some will dislike these performances, finding them too slow, overly weighted, and excessively rich in tone. I find them compelling, but they may be too idiosyncratic to qualify as a first choice for these works. I can recommend them as a supplement to a Beethoven quartet collection, for those interested in trying something different. Those who do will encounter much that is rewarding and even remarkable in these performances.

FANFARE: Daniel Morrison
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Works on This Recording

Quartet for Strings no 10 in E flat major, Op. 74 "Harp" by Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Eugenia Alikhanova (Violin), Valentina Alykova (Violin), Tatiana Kokhanovskaya (Viola),
Olga Ogranovich (Cello)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Moscow String Quartet
Period: Classical 
Written: 1809; Vienna, Austria 
Venue:  Channel Classics Studio, Amsterdam 
Length: 33 Minutes 10 Secs. 
Quartet for Strings no 11 in F minor, Op. 95 "Serioso" by Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Olga Ogranovich (Cello), Tatiana Kokhanovskaya (Viola), Valentina Alykova (Violin),
Eugenia Alikhanova (Violin)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Moscow String Quartet
Written: 1810 
Venue:  Channel Classics Studio, Amsterdam 
Length: 24 Minutes 51 Secs. 

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